When students go back to school in the fall, many of them will be right back in the same grade level they experienced this past school year. Reading retention laws in places like West Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, and Indiana require students to retake the third grade if they score below a certain threshold on a standardized reading test. 

These laws, which typically impacted only a small percentage of families each year, have taken on a new importance because so many kids are behind in reading post-COVID. Only 32% of fourth-grade students and 29% of eighth-grade students read proficiently according to the 2022 Nation’s Report Card. Michigan just repealed its retention law, a move supported by the state’s chapter of the nation’s largest teacher union. Ohio may soon do the same: The state legislature is considering a bill to repeal the retention law, and teachers unions in the state support scrapping the retention requirement. Tennessee’s legislature is also weighing a bill that would ease the reading retention requirement so that students who aren’t up to par on one test can still advance to the next grade if they score well enough on a different test. 

Teachers unions, and their allies in the education bureaucracy, know that many of their third graders cannot meet the reading standards necessary to advance to the fourth grade. So, instead of doing everything they can to help students meet the standard, they would rather wipe out the standard altogether. 

Third grade is a critical point for literacy because, as the saying goes, “From K-3, we learn to read. From fourth grade onward, we read to learn.” If a child leaves the third grade without the ability to understand written words, they likely won’t have the support they need to catch up on that critical skill. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that third-grade reading retention made a positive difference in educational outcomes: Students benefit when they have more time to master basics, rather than sending them to the next grade and hoping they make up those learning deficiencies somewhere along the way. 

No parent wants to be told that their child must repeat a grade, but failing the third-grade test should never be the first signal to a parent that their child is behind in reading. Parents have a moral responsibility to check in on their children’s educational progress often and to intervene early when their child needs extra help. Teachers know which of their students struggle in reading, and they should notify parents as soon as the child’s challenges are detected. When parents and teachers fulfill those obligations, holding the child back a grade will be the last line of defense against illiteracy instead of the first. 

Reading retention laws, as important as they are, only treat a symptom of a larger educational disease: Our schools are failing to teach many students how to read. The ways in which children learn are not some great mystery we have yet to decode. Kids learn to read by sounding out syllables and connecting sounds they hear with letters they see and meaning they know. But instead of using this proven method, many classrooms default to a method promoted by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, that has trained thousands of teachers to emphasize stories and meanings rather than the phonetic building blocks of words. “Sold a Story,” Emily Hanford’s excellent podcast about reading education, explains in detail how this approach has been thoroughly debunked as the supposed best way to teach reading. 

The science against the Calkins method and in favor of phonetic instruction—sounding out words—is so compelling that Calkins herself has revised her curriculum to include daily phonetics. 

Through phonetics, schools have the playbook for how to help kids learn to read and read well. Every single classroom should be teaching kids to connect letters and sounds, a method scientifically shown to create strong readers. 

The best time for schools to adopt this reading instruction method was years ago, as soon as the Calkins method was debunked. The second best time is now, before more kids lose a year to having to repeat a grade because their schools failed to teach reading.